Inbound Marketing Isn't Just for Small Companies

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Kipp Bodnar
Kipp Bodnar



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A few years back, I ran marketing and engineering at MySQL , an open source software startup. As a small, private company, we didn't have much of a marketing budget. However, we did have a large community of users that lent itself to inbound marketing techniques . We developed a comprehensive lead generation, nurturing and scoring machine that was fueled by a rich content strategy that included blogs, white papers, and web seminars. Traffic to the content was driven by search engine optimization (SEO) and Google AdWords . Over the course of several years, we grew revenues to $100 million, in part due to inbound marketing.

When Sun Microsystems acquired MySQL in 2008, we applied the same techniques across Sun's entire product line of software, servers and storage. The results were significant. In the course of a year, we increased the lead volume by 100x and created a pipeline of revenue approaching a $500 million annual run rate.

The Sales and Marketing Disconnect

For anyone who has ever worked in a large company with tens of thousands of employees, you know how hard it can be to get things done. Large companies often have very siloed departments. Marketing may not have any visibility into what the sales team needs or what's working for them. Annual budgets get cast in stone early in the year, making it hard to try new programs without cutting existing spending. Few things will win you more friends than suggesting that you cancel the annual big-event trade show.

So how do you break through and make inbound marketing successful in a large company? My advice is to develop a plan of action as a series of "experiments" and win credibility, one step at a time.

Now Hiring: Digital Natives

First of all, you need a small team of believers . As described in the Inbound Marketing book , you need a mix of digital natives with analytic abilities, web reach and content creation skills. The team needs to live and breathe online marketing, Facebook, Twitter, web seminars and digital content. In a large company, these folks are easy to spot: they think your current marketing sucks. They also likely have their own blogs and maybe even pierced body parts, though that's optional.

Most importantly, you want people who are willing to do the hard work necessary to improve the web experience for prospects and customers. Take a look at the top traffic pages from your web site. Is the message compelling? Are there clear benefits or is it a lot of buzzword gobbledygook ?

Now roll up your sleeves and create a campaign that improves the situation. Work with the product team or whoever is responsible for the content and develop the SEO, online ads and email programs to drive traffic to the pages. Rewrite the content and make sure there's a clear call-to-action with a next step for the prospect. In other words, there should be an opportunity for someone to register by giving their name, title, company and email address and get something of value in return, whether it's a trial version of the product, a white paper, a how-to guide or something similar.

If your company has multiple product lines or sales organizations, it's unlikely that every group will embrace new inbound marketing initiatives at the start. Some may be skeptical, others resistant and some are just going to be too busy. But if you can find just one group of like-minded people, then you'll have a much better chance of success. Maybe it's a product that is currently neglected by the rest of the company and someone is willing to try something new. Perhaps there is an inside sales organization that's under the gun and in need of more high quality leads .

If you can improve the situation and show real documented before and after results of leads generated and deals closed, then you'll start to win over some of the skeptics. Don't expect everyone to embrace your new-found success. Just go from one product group to the next, showing what you've been able to do and offer to do the same for them. Inbound marketing isn't about you , it is about making them the heroes.

In large companies, it's often the case that "antibodies" develop to oppose new ideas, especially if these ideas threaten sacred cows, budgets or established way of doing things. Maybe you've heard some of these objections:

  • We should never require people to register
  • Web leads never convert
  • No one reads email newsletters; it's all spam
  • We don't have time or budget to create fancy web seminars
  • Print advertising is where we get our leads
  • Our customers expect us to put on events for them

Experiment, Measure, Refine

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about marketing. The best way I've found to counter opposition, is to use a simple phrase: "What if we run a test?" Even in the stodgiest organization, it's hard to object to a test. Then make sure that your test has clear measured before and after results , whether it's page views, email responses, or leads generated. Not every test will result in a positive outcome (that's the nature of experimentation), but even failed tests may help you refine your thinking.

This testing process leads to one of the most important elements of making inbound marketing successful in any organization. Inbound marketing is dynamic; organizations need to embrace an approach of continuous refinement and improvement. Inbound marketing is not a "one shot" deal; it's more of a way of life.

In my prior job, when we first set goals of 10x improvement in lead generation, there was a palpable fear in the team. But we experimented with different approaches, and we found areas where we could achieve dramatic improvements. When we hit a 20x gain after a few months, it became a self-perpetuating situation: the team was excited about pushing the limits and finding even more ways to improve performance. After four quarters of increasing leads and pipeline, the team was well on their way to becoming leaders in a new style of marketing. While there were still some pockets of skepticism, we were able to demonstrate a significant return on investment and help the sales organization close a higher volume larger deals in less time. Isn't that the whole point of marketing?

Zack Urlocker is former VP of Products at MySQL. He has held executive positions at Sun Microsystems, webMethods, Active Software and Borland. He's an advisor, investor and board member of several software companies. You can follow him at and .

Photo Credit: llawliet


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